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Four Pre-Digital Reviews of Gothard’s Theology
We note that Dr. Patterson amended his article on May 15, 2014. He laments Bill Gothard's moral failings, but concludes: "This renders the outcome of recent days tragic but negates no biblical truth elucidated [by Gothard]." Patterson's response may deserve an article of its own, but that is for another day.
Henke, David. “A Summary Report: Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles,” for Edgewood Baptist Church, September, 1993. This article is republished below with the author's permission.
A SUMMARY REPORT
Bill Gothard’s Institute In Basic Life Principles
by David Henke, September 1993
In 1985, a colleague gave me access to his files so that I could fill gaps in my own files. One of the files that he had was on Bill Gothard’s ministry. I copied it for the sake of having it. I had a higher opinion of Gothard’s ministry at the time. I have spent countless hours researching the subjects of performance-based attempts at Christian living, legalism, and the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, and, as a result, I have changed my opinion of the seminars. My fifteen years of experience in studying cults surely had some influence on me. Whether that background was good or not I will leave to the reader.
The issues fall into two categories: the message and the messenger. The message is public and, therefore, open to public discussion. The question of the messenger’s failure to live up to his teaching is something that has already been taken through the process of Matthew 18 without satisfactory results, according to those who tried to bring accountability. Therefore, the issue of the messenger is now at the stage of taking it to the whole church. In our case that is Edgewood Baptist Church.
I see four areas of concern regarding the ministry and teachings of Bill Gothard. First, there is a heavy orientation toward spiritual performance to achieve “success” in the Christian life. Second, many of Gothard’s teachings are, I believe, unbiblical or spiritually unhealthy. Third, Gothard avoids and suppresses publicity. Fourth, I believe Bill Gothard disqualified himself from further ministry in the late 1970s.
Gothard’s original organization, the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC), was later renamed the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Henceforth I will refer to the organization as the Institute or use one of the abbreviations. Interpretation of scripture, Institute literature, and personal experiences are reported as I, or the source, understood them. This paper will serve to summarize information already available, which is very little, with references to those resources that provide greater detail. See the bibliography for a list of what is available.
I. Performance Preoccupation
Before discussing the illustrations of the problem in Gothard’s teaching, it is important to explain some concepts at the root of performance preoccupation.
Over the last couple of years, my ministry to the cults led me to study the methods of mind control. Mind control is like the capstone on the pyramid of performance. At the base of the pyramid is what Jeff VanVonderen calls a shame-based identity and system of relationships. The person who suffers from shame sees himself as defective, lacking love and acceptance. He constantly strives to meet these needs. The effort is through inappropriate means, i.e., more performance. Because this doesn’t satisfy, the result is more shame, fatigue, and a sense of spiritual deadness.
When Adam fell, we all became defective (total depravity). This affected our ability to give and receive love. We were estranged from God because of our sin; therefore, virtually every religion in human history has sought through illegitimate means (works righteousness or legalism) to earn God’s acceptance. But God gives His love unconditionally (“While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly” Romans 5:6).
Some Christians who try to “earn” God’s acceptance learn this behavior. Early in life they experience the conditional love, shaming messages, and overly strong control of their parents. Children need the love and acceptance of their parents so much that, when it is withheld or given conditionally, the child will unconsciously interpret this as meaning they are not loved because they are defective. When this message is internalized the child will seek to perform for his sense of acceptance.
Another means by which Christians learn to “earn” God’s acceptance is through simple laziness. It is much easier to accept the teaching of a spiritual leader as one’s own than to do the work necessary to find biblical truth and balance (1 Cor. 1:12). A prime responsibility of any spiritual leader is to teach individual responsibility.
Legalism can grow out of the ground of shame-based relationships. Because performance is external, how things appear becomes more important than how they really are. There is usually a list of do’s and don’ts that qualify the legalist to be accepted or rejected. Legalists can be doctrinaire, rigid, unmerciful, and unforgiving.
Legalism is better characterized as an attitude than a set of beliefs. The focus is on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, hence the application of biblical teaching about Christian living will lead to uniformity among people. The first things to die among legalists is the joy of life, freedom, and a personal relationship with God. When this joy of life dies, living for God becomes tiring because it is now being done out of obligation rather than love. The emotions of fear and guilt take a devastating toll among Christians who try to perform for acceptance. They fear that they will fail and be rejected by others, and their guilt never seems to be forgiven. Romans 8:1 is living water for such people.
Legalism, in turn, is the ground out of which spiritual abuse arises. “Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment…. Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person…. power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader…” (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 20).
Capping the pyramid is mind control, or brainwashing, which is pervasive in cults. All of the above conditions exist in extremity. The victim has unconsciously given his will to the control of the group or leader.
Emotionally hurting people are very vulnerable to such systems because they are more desperate in their search for acceptance, significance, strength, solutions, and supportive relationships. Legalists really think they have these things and offer them gladly. Legalists never think of themselves as legalists, but see themselves as committed Christians. In the end, legalists offer more performance instead of grace and the result is often broken relationships, emotional breakdown, spiritual disillusionment, and a lot of shame. Then, when the victims verbalize their feelings, they are blamed for having a spiritual problem of rebellion, pride, or bitterness. In other words, more shame. Incidentally cults always blame the victims for their victimization. The truth is that the counsel just did not work.
In my research on legalism vs. grace, and works vs. faith, I found numerous people in the counseling field who said that their case-loads increased significantly after a Gothard seminar. Wilfred Bockelman, in his book Gothard: The Man and His Ministry, an Evaluation, said, “I remember one evening I was talking with a group of people from one church who had all gone to the seminar and discussed with them the pros and cons of the Institute. One of them came to my wife afterwards and said, ‘I didn’t go to the Institute myself, but I just wanted to hear what it was all about. You know, I work for the county mental health clinic, and I know from past experience that we are the ones who get stuck with the people whose thinking and lives have been wrecked by this kind of approach’.” (p. 18).
Dr. Ronald Allen describes Gothard’s approach as “a mechanistic approach to human personality. There are ten steps for this and five steps for that, yet eight steps for another. Such an approach to human personality accords neither with the variations in people or with the dynamics of scripture. The listing of these ‘steps’ is pure human invention, but Gothard presents each of the lists as though they were the direct teaching of the Bible” (“Issues of Concern—Bill Gothard and the Bible: A Report,” p. 2).
Dr. Dan Allender tells us why this approach is so popular and attractive. He said, “Fallen human nature wants control and guarantees, and any system or model of change that offers relief through the faithful execution of clear steps touches a basic desire of the fallen soul” (The Wounded Heart, p. 174).
I read several books in which reference was made to a “seminar” which was a serious source of dysfunction in Christian living. Having attended the IBYC seminars several times, I felt certain that the authors were alluding to Gothard. When I spoke with them, they confirmed my deductions.
II. Problem Teachings
Having dealt with cults for fifteen years, I know that there is no new doctrine under the sun. Teachings proclaimed as “new insights” into the scripture have always been used to attract and hold proselytes. Once in such a group, the idea of ever leaving causes one to think of going back to a condition of spiritual deadness where these new insights do not exist. This is the impetus behind much of the spiritual elitism in such groups. Every doctrine has existed before in church history—whether true or false. The only thing genuinely new is our own personal insight.
“…Bill Gothard himself has stated in several seminars ‘Truth out of balance always leads to heresy’.” (Term paper “Bill Gothard and Dispensationalism”, for Graduate Seminar in Theology TH 560, by Rev. Robert J. Sheridan, April, 1984, Calvary Bible College)
This area of concern involves a list of more serious teachings which I believe are unbalanced and/or unbiblical. They also bear the marks of a legalistic focus on external performance. Because of the space involved I will deal with several areas while referring the reader to other resources. Some problem teachings include:
1) Authority and submission teaching (“Chain of Command”) and the related “Umbrella of Protection.” (See discussion below.)
2) Generational curses, or sins of the forefathers, and the problems passed on to adopted children. (For information ask for “Bethany Christian Services Responds To Bill Gothard’s ‘Ten Reasons Why Adopted Children Tend To Have More Conflicts’.” and Rev. Richard Fisher’s article “Deliver Us From Deliverance.”)
3) His confused and restrictive view on divorce and remarriage. (See Tim Crater’s article in The Journal of Pastoral Practice.)
4) His imposition of an Old Testament culture and law on the Church and family.
5) His hermeneutics, or the principles ofr biblical interpretation. (Find quotes by Allen and Sheridan below. For further insight, seek out the articles by Dr. Ronald Allen and Rev. Robert J. Sheridan.)
Other areas of concern where research materials were not available include the Institute’s medical counsel and homeschooling teaching.
What material I do have contains the notes and comments of a pastor who attended a seminar in which Gothard’s material was taught. One of his notes reads: “Home education is God’s plan for every family to educate their children. Deut. 6:7” If that is the case, are parents who send their children to a traditional school committing a sin? Is there evidence that this dogmatic assertion leads to a legalistic mindset or spiritual elitism? Dogmatism about such things usually does where the human personality is involved.
I believe Gothard’s teachings are unhealthy because they involve the most intimate relationships. If Gothard’s dogmatism in these areas is not balanced, or is simply wrong, then marriages and families can be destroyed, and physical, emotional, and spiritual health can be seriously harmed. Dr. Dan Allender said, “Repeated exposure to inaccurate information about internal realities leads to a mistrust of one’s own feelings and intuition” (The Wounded Heart, p. 120).
The question we must ask ourselves regarding the seriousness of the problem is the same one Rev. Sheridan asked in his paper. He said, “As research was done for this study numerous individuals were contacted, both theologians, past staff members, and current staff members. After one conversation during which some of these areas of weakness were noted, I asked ‘What positive things do you feel the Institute is doing today?’, for the purpose of being able to balance what I have to say. The response came back ‘Well, I know of many people who have been helped.’ But you will find nowhere in Scripture where it says, ‘If a man is doing good, overlook the problems.’ My problem is that trying to find out the good while these problems are not being dealt with brings us to a place where we begin to have an ethical problem, saying the end justifies the means” (p. 20).
A couple of other problem areas in Gothard’s teaching include his views on the order of service in church worship and rhythm in music. In his Men’s Institute Curriculum, Gothard dogmatically teaches that God has a proper order of worship, or liturgy. He titles the order of service “God’s Order,” clearly implying that any other order of service is not of God. The Bible says virtually nothing about an order of service. Gothard surely must know this, so why would he say such a thing? This is an external focus by the whole congregation.
Gothard has taught for many years that certain kinds of music are not spiritually healthy. I am not talking about the message in the lyrics, but the music itself. He contends that the three parts of music—melody, harmony and rhythm—appeal to human spirit, soul, and body. Most pernicious is the beat which appeals to the flesh. I do confess to tapping my toe to a snappy beat; however, I do not find scripture anywhere saying anything about musical rhythm. I believe music, whether it is heavy on melody or beat, is amoral. It is like a vehicle which can carry a missionary to the mission field or a bank robber to his escape. The Christian should focus his discernment on more important issues like the message in the lyrics.
Following are comments on Gothard’s teaching on the chain of command, generational sins, his hermeneutical problems, and the apparent return to Old Testament Law.
The Chain of Command
In the very brief exposure I have had to people who have followed Gothard’s teachings in these areas, the results have fallen into three general categories. First are those who are rigid in their relationships, legalistic, and frequently lacking in mercy and compassion for those at the bottom of the “chain of command.”
Second are those who, having followed the prescriptions, find their relationships and their emotional and spiritual health damaged by the strain, sometimes to the point that they leave the relationship or drive off those closest to them.
Third are those Christians who were spiritually mature and discerning who were able to glean the good material and reject the bad. Interestingly these three categories are about the same as those that Bockelman reported in his book (p. 141).
The chief fallacy of the chain of command is that it is based on a relationship of power. Those at the top of the chain seldom see a problem with the system, because it serves their perceived role. Those on the bottom, however, must put up with whatever comes their way, because to chafe under the stress would be labeled rebellion. Dr. Samuel Schultz, former Institute board member, resigned from the board when it became obvious that he could not effect policy changes to incorporate proper accountability standards. According to the Religious News Service, Dr. Schultz “raised serious questions about the biblical basis for the Seminar’s chain of command (authority) principle and its application in practice to IBYC leadership and administration procedures” (Waite, p. 94).
Wilfred Bockelman said, “It seems that Gothard fails to adequately present the need for relationships with children, positing instead the proper role and proper discipline that is necessary to get a desired response from the children. The preoccupation is with control, predictability, the proper behavior instead of the need for nurturing relationships in which learned behavior and attitudes come from models, not coercive manipulation” (p. 83, emphasis in original).
Tony Campolo, in his book The Power Delusion, describes the relationship of coercive power and love as existing in inverse proportion to one another in any relationship. To the extent that a person is loving (vulnerable) he is not using coercive power (invulnerable), and to the extent that he is using coercive power (invulnerable) he is not loving (vulnerable). Power provides invulnerability whereas love is willing to be vulnerable for the sake of the one loved. Love and power exist together in any healthy relationship but love dominates and is the motivating factor.
This relationship is illustrated by the following chart.
The relationship of power and love is illustrated in the difference between Christ’s first and second comings. He made Himself vulnerable in His first coming and exercised coercive power only once, when He cleansed the temple. At His second coming Christ will come in power.
When Christ cleansed the temple, He gave us an interesting insight into God’s attitude toward those who use His Name for their own purposes. The moneychangers were to serve God’s people by providing a legitimate service and thus help them on toward God. Instead they used God’s house and His name to meet their own needs and thus hindered the people’s access to God. This is what made Christ angry.
The chain of command is legitimate in the workplace, the military, or the government. However, in churches and families it has much less legitimacy. The reason is that, in the chain of command, the operative word is command. In the chain of command, the focus and purpose of the relationship is the task, whereas, in the family and church, the purpose and focus is on the person. Commanding is not how loving relationships should be handled. It is contrary to the very definition of love, which is to desire the best for the loved one without regard to the costs to oneself. This definition contains a power element in a healthy relationship, but is basically submissive of personal preference to the other person. When that power element functions we could call it tough love, but it is motivated by love.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21 that we are to submit ourselves to one another. This is a love relationship that he called us to in verses 1 and 2. He goes on to comment specifically on the submission of wives, children, and servants to those over them because of Christ. It is “natural” in the above relationships for wives to submit and for children and servants to obey. It is not “natural” for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. When husbands use Ephesians 5:22 and 6:1 to force their wives and children into subjection to their authority, they are using coercive power and, therefore, they are not loving them as Christ did. Each person should focus on their own verses. With Gothard, the focus is on those at the bottom of the chain of command: women and children, the most easily controlled. That focus is very easily distorted toward their submission instead of their being equipped, enabled, empowered, and freed to fulfill God’s will in their lives.
Wilfred Bockelman said, “Actually one could just as easily focus on the duty of the husband to ‘love his wife as Christ loved the church.’ Instead of relying on the husband’s position of authority to bring about an orderly, happy home, perhaps the husband ought to draw his family to obedience by the power of his love for them. Indeed, this is the model Christ offers: ‘We love Him because He first loved us,’ not because of His position of authority” (p. 106).
Dr. Ronald Allen, Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, said Gothard teaches “a dogmatic presentation of personal opinions as though they were the word of God, when in fact they are countered by the Bible itself. Paramount among these is the terrible picture of the chain of command in the family with the husband as the hammer, the wife as the chisel, and the children as the gems in the rough… This illustration is simply not reflective of biblical theology: it is a parody of patriarchalism. Lost is all concept of mutual submission and inter-relatedness of wife and husband which the Bible truly presents: instead there is the basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context. Women are stripped of dignity other than that which they have in their husbands; children are to be broken; the husband is to be permitted tyranny over the grin-and-bear-it little woman. Gothard has lost the biblical balance of the relationship between women and men as equals in relationship. His view is basically anti-woman” (p. 6).
Christians, and Baptists in particular, have fought hard for the priesthood of the believer as a foundational biblical concept in the relationship between God and His people. In this doctrine every believer is the equal of any and every other believer. There is no one who is bigger, better, or more powerful in the eyes of God. Those who lead must have moral authority rather than positional authority. Paul had positional authority as an apostle, but his real authority was in his life and teaching. Because he taught the truth and lived his life consistent with what he taught, he had moral authority and, therefore, people were willing to submit to his counsel. Paul commended the Bereans for evaluating his teaching (Acts 17:11). He advised the Corinthians to follow him as he followed the Lord (2 Cor. 11:1), which clearly implies that they were free to not follow him if his life was not exemplary. This is two-way accountability, mutual submission. Gothard does not believe in mutual submission.
In his term paper, Rev. Sheridan said, “In the Old Testament you find this concept related by the Institute in seeing a person’s position over his personality. You could have the high priest be a reprobate, but he was still the high priest, and therefore to receive the respect and honor due him. In the New Testament, however, you find position comes to individuals because of character. According to the authority and chain-of-command material in the Basic Seminar book, it would seem that if you had a pastor who was reprobate, you would seek to appeal to him as your authority, but still respect him in his position. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 teach us that position is not always to be reverenced, no matter what the personality…. The problem here is not that there is no benefit to the Institute’s principle, the problem is that it is not a universal principle and if held to rigidly would detract from the Holy Spirit’s ministry in our life” (p. 12).
Gothard’s chain of command teaching leads to problems involving Christian unity, violation of conscience, abuse of authority, false shame, false guilt, legalism, and distortion of accountability. Those under abusive authority who believe in Gothard’s chain of command teaching will suffer under the heavy weight of false guilt when the teaching doesn’t produce the expected results. An abusive authority will place the guilt on the unsubmissive person who is “not under authority”—this is called shaming. The guilt properly belongs with the abusive authority and the teachers of a false system.
Gothard would say that such abuse is an opportunity to suffer for Jesus. There is some legitimacy to that view; however, where does Gothard talk about the wonderful opportunity for the abusive authority to be held accountable? Accountability is one-way-only in Gothardism. Those on top hold those below accountable. Those on the bottom cannot hold authority accountable. In fifteen years of dealing with cults I have learned a fundamental truth about authority: without two-way accountability, power will corrupt, accountability will become a one-way street, and those on the bottom have no recourse but to suffer in silence. A counselor who tells someone that they should “suffer for Jesus” without also holding the abuser responsible becomes an enabler to the abuser. The abused person will probably accept their negative feelings about their plight as being the sins of pride, rebellion, etc. Hence the victim is blamed for being the victim.
James and Phyllis Alsdurf address this unequal power relationship in their book Battered into Submission. They say, “Fittingly Gothard’s examples deal only with suffering on the part of women — not men. In fact despite calls for mutual submission in Eph. 5:21, Gothard says, ‘The philosophy of mutual submission is a very subtle way of eliminating power. You do this by equally distributing power to every person; thus no one has any more authority than anyone else. This is the basis of humanism in which each person is his own God’. For Gothard suffering for righteousness sake is not a mutual call to husband and wife” (Battered Into Submission, by James and Phyllis Alsdurf, p. 88, quoting Virginia Mollenkott’s dialogue with Bill Gothard in Faith at Work, 1975, p. 26).
Job’s “friends” followed the mechanistic, cause and effect doctrine that Gothard teaches. Job could not have known the debate that was going on between Satan and God over Job’s faithfulness. Job’s friends knew even less. Dr. Allen saw this mechanistic approach to human personality and spirituality when he noted that Gothard makes “a surprising use of Scripture texts to produce guilt on the part of godly people. Women with rebellious sons are made to believe that these heartaches are the direct result of their own lack of submission to their husbands” (Allen, “Issues”, p. 7).
An obvious example includes the IBLP alumni booklet for 1993 (Ten Reasons for Alumni to Be Encouraged) which talks about “How to Experience Instant Freedom From Fear, Anger, and Depression” (p. 8). Instant freedom? God is certainly able to deliver His people instantly from any of these problems; however, biblically and historically we see Him working in and through you and me to minister to one another. Instant solutions are very attractive—and usually very wrong. They lend themselves to sensationalism. Without a balancing comment, one could conclude that if anyone follows the three steps at any time they will always experience instant freedom.
On page 225 of the Rebuilder’s Guide, Gothard says that one of the consequences of divorced people remarrying in the church is “physical weakness, sickness and death.” His support of this is 1 Cor. 11:30, which deals with the Lords Supper, not divorce and remarriage. He further states that if divorced people are allowed to teach they will tell “shameful details about their first marriage in order to get sympathy.” (Rebuilder’s Guide. IBYC, pp. 225, 226).
Single young people are taught to submit to their parents’ counsel because God uses the parents in the chain of command to guide the singles in their decisions. The wisdom of parents is valuable, but is not a law of God.
Gothard always cites success stories to substantiate his teaching, leading to a theology by anecdote. However, he never cites the failures. Can he be refuted by anecdote? In my conversations with former IBYC Headquarters staff, one said that Gothard would tell success stories involving people who were listening to him. These people wondered who he was talking about. It certainly wasn’t them. Also, these former staffers told me that Gothard would continue telling these stories even after the person involved had experiencedspiritual and emotional shipwreck because of the teaching. There are numerous people in our own church who could also refute Gothard by anecdote, i.e., their own experience.
Should a single Christian man whose parents are not Christian obey their counsel if they tell him to stay home rather than do summer missionary work in a foreign country? Submission to such counsel would be wrong because Psalm 1:1 says we should not walk in the counsel of the ungodly. Such a decision is between the individual and God. It is also a case of the gospel being held hostage to the “wisdom” of non-Christians.
This cause and effect approach to human personality is also seen in teaching on generational sins. Gothard teaches that the sins of the forefathers (ancestral bondage) attach to their offspring. Christian children must learn what sins (strongholds) their biological parents had and confess them in order to be free of them. He uses Exodus 20:5 as his scriptural basis. However, there is no basis in scripture to say that a Christian must confess someone else’s sin. What is meant is that the sinful influence of a parent impacts their children who imitate their modeled behavior. There is no genetic or spiritual jurisdiction transmitted to succeeding generations.
Jesus disproves the theory in John 9. His disciples ask, ‘“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither did this man sin, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him’” (vss. 2, 3).
Ezekiel 18 is very clear that “the soul that sins shall die” for his own sin, not for that of another. The impact of this teaching on the adopted child will be far more damaging than the imagined generational sins. An adopted child will come to see himself as “damaged goods” or as cursed. He could also see himself as having a handicap in his relationship with God.
Hermeneutics (The principles of Biblical interpretation)
“In religion, what damned error, but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament” (The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 2 , quoted in The Wittenburg Door, April 1973, p. 18).
Dr. Earl Radmacher told me of a conversation he had with Gothard where Bill said, “You expect me to be an exegete. I’m not an exegete. I’m not a teacher. I don’t have the gift of teaching.” Dr. Radmacher said. “Well, for God’s sake, Bill, why don’t you stop teaching then? Why don’t you read James 3? It says, ‘Stop being many teachers, my brother,s knowing you will receive the stricter judgment’.”
I think it best to repeat to you the comments of Dr. Ronald Allen and Rev. Robert Sheridan on the subject of Gothard’s hermeneutical standards. They have said it better than I could have. Gothard’s hermeneutics are of paramount importance because if he doesn’t understand how to interpret scripture by the literal, contextual, historical, and grammatical method then his conclusions from scripture will be skewed. In other words, Gothard would be putting words in God’s mouth.
Dr. Allen, Th.D., Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, had this to say in his “Issues” paper:
“The week that I spent at Basic Youth Conflicts in 1973 (Portland) was one of the most difficult of my life. In this seminar I was regularly assaulted by a misuse of the Bible, particularly of the Old Testament, on a level that I have never experienced in a public ministry before that time (or since)” (p. 1). “But I do raise these issues to demonstrate that — willful or not — Gothard’s use of Scripture is so suspect as to render him a poorly informed and untrustworthy teacher. To cite letters of approval based on success stories is beside the point, unless one wishes to argue that the end justifies the means” (p. 2).
“Gothard’s approach is not that of the careful exegete who wishes to determine the meaning of the text, but of the engineer who wishes to use the material in his own programatic approach which is mechanical and not personal, mechanistic and not dynamic. Gothard does not really teach the Scripture; he really uses the Scripture t o fit into his own categories” (p. 3).
Rev. Sheridan also had much to say about Gothard’s hermeneutics:
“…you find a basic hermeneutical weakness where material is developed and disseminated which moves from experience to doctrine. The testing point of where a principle truly is from God rests strongly on a number of illustrations in people’s lives which say ‘It worked for me.’ Narrative passages are taken from historical incidents and projected into being universal principles without sufficient corroborating Scripture” (p. 20, 21).
“In an alumni supplement which came out in 1983 a new ‘principle’ was shared with pastors and laymen alike. This idea was later more fully developed through material titled ‘Ten Reasons Why Adopted Children Tend To Have More Conflicts’…. The basic thought is that just as physical and medical characteristics are passed down to our children, so ‘spiritual tendencies’ are passed down from generation to generation…. What do you think happens to all of this material when we put it to the hermeneutical test? We find that it is strong on psychological assertions and illustrations from people who have tried it, but weak on any Scriptural base. Rather than this new discovery of spiritual genes being passed on to us, could we not simply see in Ex. 20:5 the intimation that the consequences of our sin will affect those who come after us” (pp. 15, 16).
Gothard devotes much attention to the eyes. In the 1993 IBLP alumni booklet article entitled “How To Inspire Hope And Direction In Others By The Light In Your Eyes,” he says, “The eyes are the window to the soul. When Christ and His Word are living in your heart, there will be brightness in your eyes.” Isn’t this a genetic and personality trait? The eyes being a window to the soul is a metaphor, not theology, and it is certainly not a biblical expression. Pity the poor person who is not born with these advantages. The scriptures Gothard uses to substantiate his point are out of context in one case (2 Cor. 4:6) and actually refutes his point in the other (Matthew 5:16). Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Our good works are the light that is to shine, not our eyes. (IBLP 1993 Alumni booklet.)
In Bill’s letter of acceptance to ATIA students at the Indianapolis Apprenticeship Training center he says, “…if there is not the true radiance of Christ shining through our eyes, others will know it, and our ministry will be diminished.” Again, he focuses on the eyes, which are immaterial to the issue he is discussing.
Returning to the Old Testament
An important principle to remember when studying the Old Testament is that it is an old covenant between God and man. God instituted a new covenant, or testament, to govern our relationship with Him. Thus, something commanded in the Old Testament that is not repeated in the New Testament is probably not meant for the New Testament believer.
Another important principle to keep in mind is that just because the Bible mentions something does not mean that it is commanded. This is especially important when we study the Old Testament and the Jewish culture in which it is set. Jewish cultural patterns contain rich lessons for us, but they are not a model we are commanded to imitate.
Regarding this Rev. Robert Sheridan stated, “The material of the Institute has two major areas of weakness. First, you have a concept that the Old Testament was God’s ideal society for us today…” (p. 20, 21).
The Hebrew culture was patriarchal. The patriarch had great power and his family was usually an extended one of several generations living together. If this was the ideal arrangement, then where does the New Testament teach the Gentile converts to observe it?
Regarding the Old Testament Law, Rev. Sheridan also said,
“Several answers, all evasive in character, have been given to the question: Is the Christian believer under the law? For the most part they are based upon wrong or inadequate definitions of law. a. Some argue that the believer is under the moral law, but not under the ceremonial law. b. Others say that we are under the moral law, but not under its penalties. c. Still others assert that we are under the moral law as a rule of life, but not as a way of salvation…. We will not be misled by any of the above erroneous views if we hold fast to a complete definition of the divine law, namely, that the law of God in the Bible is one law, including moral, ceremonial and civil elements, and inseparable from its penalties. In summary we may say that for one to be ‘under the law’ in the Biblical sense is to be under the law of God – the entire Mosaic legal system in its indivisible totality – subject to its commands and liable to its penalties” (Sheridan, p. 10, quoted from Alva J. McClain, Law and Grace, pp. 41-42).
An example of following the Old Testament Law is provided in this comment by Dr. Allen,
“I will never forget the presentation made in the seminar I attended where the Torah’s injunction not to boil the kid in its mother’s milk (the mistaken basis for the Jewish tradition of meat–dairy laws) was applied to the Christian church! ‘Why do Christians get sick?’ He asked. ‘Because they do not eat as God has commanded!’ He then proceeded not only to lay the burden of the Levitical dietary law on the people, but the non-biblical injunction of meat-dairy distinctions as well!… Even Jewish authorities now admit that Maimonides was correct, that the passages on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk had nothing to do with diet but with an abominable sacrificial practice of the Canaanites from which Israel was to abstain. But in the teaching of Gothard an ancient bad turn of Judaism was made the new path for Christian people” (“Issues”, p. 7).
The Elders of the New Durham Chapel in New Jersey reviewed the teachings and other problems surrounding the Institute and wrote a report of their findings and recommendations. Regarding Gothard’s teaching on the Old Testament ceremonial law they concluded,
“Mr. Gothard currently teaches that the believer today is excluded from the sacrificial system but is under the entire ceremonial law. The Christian’s obligation to obey the dietary regulations and the sexual commandments are heavily emphasized at the IBYC Pastor’s Seminar. Mr. Gothard takes laws given to Israel and mandates them upon the believer today in complete violation of 1 Timothy 4:4–5, Hebrews 13:4, and Acts 11:1–10. Consequently, Mr. Gothard holds to and propagates an erroneous view of the Old Testament Law in the context of the New Testament Church” (“A Summary and Recommendation of the Ministries of Bill Gothard,” New Durham Chapel, Piscataway, NJ, June 1986, p. 3).
III. Control of Information
There has been an avoidance and suppression of publicity throughout the history of the Institute. There are other avoidance and control problems of concern, such as the lack of direct Bible teaching in favor of his own material, the prohibition of tape recorders, and the request that the material not be discussed while at the seminar. All material is dogmatically taught even where scripture is silent, thereby implying that it is unquestionably correct. These factors, together with the sheer volume of material being covered, create an atmosphere where critical thinking and evaluation is hindered.
For example, it is reminiscent of The Way International cult’s Power for Abundant Living course. In that 36-hour videotaped course, questions are not allowed until the end, and then they must be in writing—virtually assuring that no other students will be infected by contradictory ideas. There should be no real restraints on the evaluation of information or ideas, pro or con. Control of Information is one of the most important mind control mechanisms. Among the spiritual abuse methods listed below, the “Can’t Talk” rule is the means by which contrary information is controlled. No Christian should be in a position to be accused of this.
In Wilfred Bockelman’s book Gothard is reported as saying his reasons for not wanting evaluations published is that it is not “God’s way” (pp. 21, 22). “God’s way” according to Bill is found in Matthew 18 and Galatians 6:1, which tell us to go privately to someone who has sinned against us. However, these texts do not relate to public teaching at all. They are talking about sins against a brother.
Public teaching is subject to public discussion and disagreement. The New Testament church was patterned after the Jewish synagogues, where there there was two-way discussion of a teacher’s lesson. Public disagreement would have been inevitable in such a setting. Gothard’s seminars certainly do not provide such openness. If Gothard’s principle were followed, Paul would not have immediately and publicly rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11–14).
Wilfred Bockelman also cited the example of Gothard suppressing the Wheaton College alumni paper from doing a report on him as one of the college’s successful graduates. And evangelical publishers have turned down authors who wanted to write a book about Gothard. One said, “We know that Gothard doesn’t want a book published about him, so we’re not going to publish one” (Bockelman, p. 19).
Joseph Bayly, in his June 1977 column in Eternity magazine, asked Gothard some very important questions about the extent of his teaching on a wife’s submission to her husband and a child’s obedience to his parents. Bayly had heard reports of wives, following Gothard’s teaching, submitting to the point of lying and even prostitution, and of parents trying to break a child’s will leading to the physical abuse, and even death, of a child. Bayly’s question to Gothard was whether he taught this kind of thing? Or were his followers taking his teaching too far? Gothard could not, or would not, answer the questions. Bayly said, “It is my considered opinion, however, that no servant of the Lord is in a privileged position when it comes to answering the allegations of unbiblical teaching. And no leader, Christian or otherwise, who programs the minds of tens of thousands is above answering responsible criticism.”
IV. Disqualification from Ministry
I believe Bill Gothard disqualified himself from ministry in the late 1970s. Bill’s brother Steve was involved in very perverse sexual promiscuity while vice-president of the Institute and while writing Volume 2 of the Character Sketches. High-level Institute staff tried to bring accountability to Bill, Steve, and the Board, but they were frustrated at every turn and finally were dismissed or resigned. Given the message of the Institute about conflict resolution, having a pure conscience, and breaking strongholds, it is important to consider how Bill and the Institute resolved this conflict. A chronology was compiled by former staff detailing the events.
In the Chronology’s introduction, the former staff say, “It is very important for you to realize that these notes are a partial aspect of this group of concerned Christians taking the third step of Matthew 18:15–21, having unsuccessfully taken the first and second steps over the last one year period of time in scores of meetings with the above-mentioned persons” (Waite, p. 43).
I had a one-hour phone conversation with Bill Gothard in May 1993 regarding some of my concerns. I told him of a book I had read by D. A. Waite (Bill Gothard’s Sex Scandal: Watergate? Or Waterloo?) regarding the massive sex scandal that came to light in 1980. Gothard immediately referred to the above chronology, only 19 pages out of 132, and said that the chronology was not true because no one signed their name to it, it was filled with factual errors, and he had brought in six nationally known Christian leaders from around the country to investigate the charges. These leaders, Gothard told me, found no support for the charges. I have spoken with some of the highest ranking former IBYC staff and all of them said they were never approached by these six leaders for their side of the story.
The basic story of the scandal is that Bill’s brother Steve had been sexually involved with at least six single staff secretaries for a period of five years. In 1976 some of the staff learned of the misconduct and confronted Bill about it. In January 1977, Steve confessed to the Board that he was “defrauding” secretaries. The actual sin was not named at this time and none of the “defrauded” secretaries were at the meeting. What was the Board to conclude? Were they holding hands? Bill knew the truth. Steve’s punishment was that he was sent to the Northwoods Retreat to write for the Character Sketches books. Steve, I am told, loved the Retreat. Bill sent secretaries to the Northwoods to help Steve write the new material on character. According to the chronology, Steve continued to seduce secretaries.
In 1980 the continued immorality came to light again and the staff tried again to hold Bill and Steve accountable. The chronology indicates an inability by the staff to see the problems resolved.
When the full extent of the scandal became known to the Board, Board member Dr. Samuel Schultz resigned. Dr. Schultz was a professor at Wheaton College and taught Bill while he was a student there in the 1950s. In a phone conversation with me, Dr. Schultz said that Gothard asserted that he was not accountable to the Board but only to God (sounds like Swaggart and Bakker). Schultz said that, if that was the case, Gothard did not need him and so he resigned.
When efforts at accountability and reconciliation were frustrated, Rev. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church recommended that the Christian Legal Society be invited to provide impartial arbitration through its Christian Conciliation Service. The staff were willing, but Bill and the Institute rejected the offer.
The common refrain I have heard from other former staff is that power and control are very important to Bill. To illustrate this, Dr. Schultz told me of a meeting in which he asked a group of 30 staff if they felt they needed to ask Bill for permission to date someone. Fifteen people raised their hands. This is one of the results of the “chain of command” teaching, which leads to an overly strong dependence on the “authority” in command. Jon Farhat, former staff artist interviewed in the Cleveland Press, Monday, Sept. 29, 1980, said “Bill has an obsession for power.” If that is true, then it follows that anything that would threaten that power must be rejected.
On July 22, 1980, Gothard wrote a letter to 40,000 alumni pastors confessing the scandal. In that letter he said, “I deeply regret that it has taken this tragedy as well as the leaving of some faithful staff to bring me to comprehend the full significance of the problem. It is for this reason that I have requested a release from the Board for a period of time to seek the Lord’s direction in correcting the situation. I ask for your prayers for my family, past and present staff and their families, the board and me at this time.” (emphasis mine)
Gothard was released by the Board as he said. However, he was back in charge as president just three weeks later. In the staff’s chronology, under the date of July 23–29, 1980, within the week of Bill’s letter to pastors, they note, “Melvin, Tony, Mike, and Gary S. meet with Bill for five days to clear away personal differences and hurts to free up the relationship between Bill and Tony so they can again work together. With good progress being made, Bill cancels this whole process by declaring to the men that one staff member, the Board, his family, and God had advised him to stop meeting with these men.” (Waite, p. 60)
When it was all over, the Institute headquarters staff lost two-thirds of the approximately 75 employees. The September 29, 1981, issue of Christianity Today quoted Bill Wood, Administrative Director of the Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters, as saying “most of the people leaving were the ones who had to meet the public and represent Bill.” Wood said they left because they could not, in good conscience, work for Bill when his practices did not match his teachings (p. 56).
No one among the former staff with whom I spoke said that there had been anything resembling a biblical resolution of the problems in the ministry. The women who were abused should have had whatever help they needed toward recovery offered to them by the Institute. They were “dismissed as a step toward restoration” (Gothard’s July 22, 1980, letter to alumni pastors). Many of these women still suffer emotional problems today.
It was important to me as I talked with each of the former staff to discern their attitude toward Bill. Some of them related very deep injury to themselves and their families. Was there anger, bitterness, or any desire to retaliate? I didn’t find any such attitude. These people still genuinely love him. A couple of them said they would do whatever they could even now if they thought it would help Bill to see the source of the problems that he and the ministry experienced.
In each of my phone conversations with former staff, I was told that I would be wasting my time trying to convince “Gothardites” that they need to reconsider their allegiance to Gothard and IBLP. Their own experience has been that of hostile disbelief and accusation of attacking “the Lord’s anointed.” I was also warned that it was not in my best interest to publicly denounce his ministry.
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod studied the Institute’s seminars and wrote a report for their membership in which they noted that
“a curious phenomenon has emerged from interviews with ‘alumni’ of the Basic Youth Conflicts seminars. While those best educated in theology were the most critical of parts of Gothard’s presentations, they at the same time claimed the most benefits and inspiration from them. Their chief criticisms centered in confusion of Law and Gospel, ‘loose’ use of Scripture, and the ‘non-optional’ conclusions drawn from the ‘Chain of Command.’ They were a bit chagrined by Gothard’s hints of the ‘infallibility’ of his principles, and, at times, found themselves suspicious of a ‘system’ that ‘has everything nailed down’” (LCMS position paper, p. 7).
Dr. Allen asks why Gothard teaches dogmatically, with no hint of room for disagreement or even Gothard’s error. His own answer is, “because cultic figures never speak in this way. Attendance will not hold up when one does not claim to have an inside track with the secret things of God. Gnosticism did not die in the desert caves of Egypt. It lives in many coliseums and in numerous fat red notebooks all over the country” (Allen, “Gothard Again”, p. 8).
It is not my desire to attack a Christian brother because I disagree with some of his teachings, or because I think his own record is at odds with his teachings. I react to it because of the damaging impact on people’s lives. For fifteen years I have seen the damage done to people by the combination of false teaching and abuse of power in cultic religions. It saddensme but I also knew that none of these people were Christians. They were blind followers of blind leaders. However, when I began to see the same destructive impact on Christians resulting from the legalistic, performance-oriented teaching of IBLP I could not let it go.
In conversations with former staffers and others who have tried to follow the IBYC prescription for Christian living and failed, I repeatedly heard these characteristics of spiritual abuse.
Power Posturing—The focus is on the authority figure. If the authority is not real (i.e. moral authority), then it is postured.
Performance Preoccupation—The emphasis is on performance as the means of spiritual acceptance.
Unspoken Rules—The most common unspoken rule is the “can’t talk” rule. The person who speaks about a problem becomes the problem. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” is often heard.
Lack of Balance—Extreme objectivism or extreme subjectivism are common, and balance is defined by the leader. The leader tells people what to believe or not believe.
Paranoia—“Others will not understand us so we will avoid talking with them.”
Misplaced Loyalty—Primary loyalty is unconsciously given to the leader (because he is speaking God’s truth) all the while thinking their primary loyalty is to God.
Secretive—An abusive system is very image-conscious; secrecy helps maintain a righteous appearance.
No one sets out to promote such a system, and few who are in one are even aware of the unhealthy nature of the system. However, frequently there is a sense that something is not right. Usually they look inside themselves to place the blame. And this leads to the most damaging characteristic of the abusive system:
Assigning of Blame—Because the system is considered perfect, when it doesn’t work the problem must be that you did something wrong, had sin in your heart, or gave up too soon.
Jeff VanVonderen talks about these victims when he describes the four stages they go through on their way to spiritual shipwreck. The four stages are; 1) Try Hard, 2) Try Harder, 3) Try Your Hardest, 4) Give Up. (Tired of Trying to Measure Up. Bethany House, Minneapolis, MN)
People who get fully into the Institute system who do not have a good theological grounding and who have not properly understood the relationship of law and grace may face a grave danger of legalism. This danger is multiplied for those from backgrounds where love was conditional or there was an absence of grace-full relationships.
Certainly Bill Gothard would deny that he teaches toward these excesses. I sympathize with the cry, “Lord, deliver me from my disciples.” However, the fact that the Institute’s system produces such results has to point us back to the roots. Then we must conclude that “by their fruits ye shall know them.”
I cannot recommend the seminars for anyone, for any reason, at any time. I believe the danger to spiritual health is just too great.
This report is very brief, believe it or not. I have hit only the highlights, and many issues were not addressed. If anyone desires a fuller examination of the issues I am willing to help you as I can.
Recommended Reading on the subject of legalism and performance based Christian living.
Wisdom Hunter by Randall Arthur (Questar)
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Johnson and VanVonderen (Bethany)
Families Where Grace Is in Place by Jeff VanVonderen (Bethany)
Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen (Bethany)
Breaking Free by Dr. David Miller (Baker)
Freedom From the Performance Trap by David Seamands (Victor)
The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll (Word)
Cages of Pain by Gordon Aeschliman (Word)
Damaged Disciples by Ron and Vicki Burks (Zondervan)
Battered Into Submission by James and Phyllis Alsdurf (InterVarsity)
The Wounded Heart by Dr. Dan Allender (NavPress)
The Power Delusion by Tony Campolo (Victor Books)
Alsdurf, James and Phyllis, Battered Into Submission. (InterVarsity)
Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. (Bethany House)
Tony Campolo, The Power Delusion. (Victor Books, Wheaton, IL)
Wilfred Bockelman, Gothard. The Man And His Ministry: An Evaluation. (Santa Barbara, CA, Quill Publications, 1976).
Dr. Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart. (NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO)
Dr. D.A. Waite, Gothard’s Sex Scandals: Watergate Or Waterloo? (The Bible For Today, Collingswood, NJ, 1962).
Crater. Tim, “Bill Gothard’s View of The Exception Clause”, The Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. 4, No. 3, (Phillipsburg, N.J.. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 5-12.
Dr. Bernard Ramm, “Citing Scripture: Butchery or Surgery?” The Wittenberg Door, April-May, 1973.
Joseph Bayly. “Basic Conflicts: An Open Letter to Bill Gothard”, Eternity, June 1977.
Several reports from Christianity Today,
– Aug. 8, 1980, “Bill Gothard Steps Down During Institute Shakeup”, pp. 46, 47.
– Sep. 19, 1980, “Gothard’s Fast Comeback Overrides Calls for Reform,” pp. 56, 59.
– Feb. 6, 1981, “Gothard Staffers Ask Hard Questions and Press for Reforms in Institute”, pp. 68, 69.
Rev. Richard Fisher – “Deliver Us From Deliverance,” Personal Freedom Outreach, Quarterly Journal.
Dr. Ronald B. Allen – “Issues of Concern – Bill Gothard and the Bible: A Report” (1984)
— “Gothard Again” OT 523 – Exegesis in Wisdom Literature (1985)
Rev. Robert J. Sheridan – “Bill Gothard and Dispensationalism” term paper for Graduate Seminar in Theology TH 560, April, 1984, Calvary Bible College
Lutheran Church Missouri Synod “Institute In Basic Youth Conflicts (Bill Gothard): A Preliminary Study”
“A Summary And Recommendation Of The Ministries Of Bill Gothard”, by the Elders of the New Durham Chapel, Piscataway, NJ, June 1986.
“Bethany Christian Services Responds To Bill Gothard’s ‘Ten Reasons Why Adopted Children Tend To Have More Conflicts’.” (8 page report)
Phone conversations with former IBYC staff, scholars, pastors, Christian counselors and a psychologist (Summer 1993).
Handwritten notes taken at the 1983 Pastor’s Seminar at the Hawthorne Gospel Church in Hawthorne, NJ, by Rev. John Hills, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Bayville, NJ.
Ten Reasons For Alumni To Be Encouraged. IBYC 1993 Alumni booklet
The Rebuilder’s Guide
Character Sketches. Vols. 1 & 2
Men’s Manual. Vols. 1 & 2
Basic Seminar Followup Course
Advanced Seminar Textbook
Basic Seminar Workbook
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